The Old Clunker

There’s an old cliché that says, Write what you know. I think it’s possible that one can write what one doesn’t know–with a great deal of perseverance and a bit of imagination. I’ve been trying for eight years to complete a novel told from the perspective of an old (I’m not overly so), male (nope, I’m certainly not) black (I’m pretty solidly white) person. It hasn’t been easy, by any stretch of the imagination. During the past months of my sabbatical, I took a break from the challenge of the old black man and wrote a short novel about an eight-year-old kid set in 1969. This was far less of a stretch for me, as I was an eight year old in 1969. Writing a novel about what I know took me all of a month. The story was finished almost as soon as it began. I will have to keep this in mind the next time an idea for a book stumbles into my head.

As I began to wander deeper into the story of my 1969 character, I found myself stumbling upon many artifacts of my own childhood. These almost-forgotten objects became a part of the landscape of my novel, all the more beloved to me as I wrote about them from having experienced them first-hand. Finding these things again was akin to unearthing them from a neglected attic or a ravine dumping spot. My memory ran its hands over them, cleaned them off, peaked into the dusty corners. One of these items was the refrigerator that stood in various houses of my childhood through many, many years. My parents bought the fridge second-hand when they were married. She was a monstrously heavy thing with one solid front door. The door was not easily opened–it was latched, and a small child had to grab the handle and lean back to have any success in opening it. Once the door was open, there was a very tiny freezer box at the top of the fridge, big enough for a couple of ice-cube trays.

My mother absolutely abhorred the fridge. She called it “The Old Clunker” without a hint of affection. Ice would build up all around the freezer box and begin to infringe on the other areas of the fridge. With great regularity, Mom had to unplug the fridge, unload it of its contents, wait for the ice to soften, and then attack the ice with a butter knife. I remember her throwing chunks of white ice into the sink with an almost violent attitude. As kids. we were constantly admonished to shut the fridge door because Mom did not want the ice to build up any faster than it had to. The good thing about that tiny freezer was that when my dad arrived home with a brick of ice-cream, we had to eat the whole thing. There was not room in the freezer for leftovers. The bad thing about the fridge was that there was no sneaking into her. The handle made a solid loud clunk when it was tugged, which would be followed by, “Get out of the fridge!” even if my mother was upstairs, supposedly out of earshot.

The fridge was no quiet entity. Her enormous motor would hum and clank, everything around would vibrate, and then she would stutter to a stop and stand quietly for a bit before resuming her grumbling. My childhood sleeps were punctuated by the sound of The Old Clunker, talking to herself through the night. My mother waited through the years, waited and waited, for the day that clunking and humming would cease. She willed the fridge to die, and The Old Clunker refused, I assume, out of patient obstinance. There was no other reason to dispose of her, aside from her general unattractiveness. The fridge kept the groceries perfectly chilled. Mom got a big deep-freeze for the things that required freezing.

The fridge soldiered on. She must have been fifty years old by the time she vacated the premises. The Old Clunker did not die. She didn’t suffer from any kind of malaise whatsoever. Tired of waiting for the fridge to die, my mother evicted her to my father’s workplace, where she continued her rhythm of hum and clank, keeping lunches and drinks perfectly chilled while acquiring an unspeakable layer of grime.

Since becoming a home owner many years ago, I cannot honestly make a tally of how many fridges this family has been through. The one we are on now quietly stopped breathing in the middle of last night, leaving me with several pounds of unthawed meat and a vast puddle across the kitchen floor this morning. I wonder where The Old Clunker ever got to, after my father retired and moved out of that shop? I suspect she was vibrating and clunking still, as he walked away and left her there. She wasn’t pretty, but she sure got the job done. I think the only thing that would have silenced her in the end was simply pulling the plug.

Wherever The Old Clunker may be, a part of her lives on in my little story, and in my memory.

Excerpt from “Corners”

      The fridge turned on with a loud clunk and then a hum and a rattle as we passed. It was a noisy old thing, and must have weighed as much as a car. Every few weeks my mother had to open it up and thaw out the freezer compartment, chip the thick walls of ice away and toss the snowy slabs into the sink. She loathed the thing, but I considered it a constant friend. The fridge kept me company through the long nights. I knew the sounds and complaints of its innards as well as I knew my own.

 

The Banquet

Every year, the teachers’ union here hosts a banquet for those retiring. Coworkers, former colleagues, etc. are invited to purchase tickets in advance, and school staffs are all seated together so they can celebrate in close proximity. The retirees form a parade at the beginning of the evening, and they are all piped in, to the wild cheers and applause of the envious audience.

Although the tone is very celebratory, there is usually a moderate sense of decorum–unless you happen to be sitting at our table.

Since I’ve been attending these banquets over the years, there has usually been a “flat” theme at our table–the retiree’s face photocopied several times and affixed to handles. These flat visages are frantically waved through the procession, and are then photographed in various poses and locations throughout the evening. One year, I recall one of these flatties being photographed with a stranger who was in the car beside us after the banquet, waiting for a red light. This year, the star of the evening dodged the flat bullet, as someone forgot the pile of flatties on their kitchen table. However, to make up for that, she was treated to the sight of her guests all sporting eye-patches as she paraded past. The eye patches were an inside joke (a story she divulged during a cottage event, which she regretted ever after).

patty

The meal is always fantastic. Of course, the hour is late by the time we line up with our plates at the buffet, and we’re ready to eat the little balls of butter before we get them anywhere near the rolls. This year, we filled our plates with said butter balls and rolls, prime rib, turkey and all the fixings, those delightful little roast potatoes that I can never quite duplicate at home, vegetables cooked to perfection (piping hot, but still crispy–another feat I can’t accomplish at home), and giant silver bowls of delicious salads. For desert, a lovely chocolate-y, mousse-y concoction with sliced strawberries and a lacy chocolate garnish glazed in edible gold.

dessert

After the meal, there are speeches. People sip at their coffee or tea, sit back in their chairs. Most people. At our table, we get up to no good, like a bunch of obnoxious children. One of the people at our table made the unfortunate mistake of leaving her phone behind when she ducked out to the washroom. We are lucky enough to have on our staff a talented photographer who can make a close-up of a folded elbow look like someone mooning. When the phone’s owner returned, she discovered a very hairy moon on her phone (it was a man’s elbow, you will be relieved to know). As the speeches were still going on, some semblance of dignity and manners had to be assumed. Anyone walking past our table would have observed every single person there with their faces completely buried in fine cloth napkins while their shoulders shook violently. Oh, the challenges of silent laughter! We have made it an art.

After the speeches, the retirees march across the stage and ring the traditional school bell, and receive engraved bells of their own to commemorate the event. One fellow last evening had a group of guys waiting at the bottom of the stage. After he rang the bell, he leaped into the air and body-surfed into their upraised hands, and cheering, they carried the guy out of the banquet hall. They would have fit in well at our table.

At the end of the evening, I was fortunate to catch the last three retirees from our school together and I snapped a picture of them–three beautiful, glowing ladies.

Someone in our party piped up. “Hey, who’s next?”

I smiled a little and waggled my fingers in the air. “Two years,” I said.

“I wonder what they’ll do to you?” someone wondered.

I have to wonder that as well. I’m hoping for the flat Corrina. I haven’t been flat for 41 years!

retired